Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. VII. - An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAP. VII. - Thomas Clarkson, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species 
An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation, which was Honoured with the First Prize, in the University of Cambridge, for the Year 1785, with Additions (London: J. Phillips, 1786).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
We come now to the fourth and last order of slaves, to prisoners of war. As the sellers lay a particular stress on this order of men, and infer much, from its antiquity, in support of the justice of their cause, we shall examine the principle, on which it subsisted among the ancients. But as this principle was the same among all nations, and as a citation from many of their histories would not be less tedious than unnecessary, we shall select the example of the Romans for the consideration of the case.
The law, by which prisoners of war were said to be sentenced to servitude, was the*law of nations. It was so called from the universal concurrence of nations in the custom. It had two points in view, the persons of the captured, and their effects; both of which it immediately sentenced, without any of the usual forms of law, to be the property of the captors.
The principle, on which the law was established, was the right of capture. When any of the contending parties had overcome their opponents, and were about to destroy them, the right was considered to commence; a right, which the victors conceived themselves to have, to recall their swords, and, from the consideration of having saved the lives of the vanquished, when they could have taken them by the laws of war, to commute blood for service. Hence the Roman lawyer, Pomponius, deduces the etymology of slave in the Roman language. * “They were called servi, says he, from the following circumstance. It was usual with our commanders to take them prisoners, and sell them: now this circumstance implies, that they must have been previously preserved, and hence the name.” Such then was the right of capture. It was a right, which the circumstance of taking the vanquished, that is, of preserving them alive, gave the conquerors to their persons. By this right, as always including the idea of a previous preservation from death,† the vanquished were said to be slaves; and, “as all slaves,” says Justinian, “are themselves in the power of others, and of course can have nothing of their own, so their effects followed the condition of their persons, and became the property of the captors.”
To examine this right, by which the vanquished were said to be slaves, we shall use the words of a celebrated Roman author, and apply them to the present case. * “If it is lawful,” says he, “to deprive a man of his life, it is certainly not inconsistent with nature to rob him;” to rob him of his liberty. We admit the conclusion to be just, if the supposition be the same: we allow, if men have a right to commit that, which is considered as a greater crime, that they have a right, at the same instant, to commit that, which is considered as a less. But what shall we say to the hypothesis? We deny it to be true. The voice of nature is against it. It is not lawful to kill, but on necessity. Had there been a necessity, where had the wretched captive survived to be broken with chains and servitude? The very act of saving his life is an argument to prove, that no such necessity existed. The conclusion is therefore false. The captors had no right to the lives of the captured, and of course none to their liberty: they had no right to their blood, and of course none to their service. Their right therefore had no foundation in justice. It was founded on a principle, contrary to the law of nature, and of course contrary to that law, which people, under different governments, are bound to observe to one another.
It is scarce necessary to observe, as a farther testimony of the injustice of the measure, that the Europeans, after the introduction of Christianity, exploded this principle of the ancients, as frivolous and false; that they spared the lives of the vanquished, not from the sordid motives of avarice, but from a conscientiousness, that homicide could only be justified by necessity; that they introduced an exchange of prisoners, and, by many and wise regulations, deprived war of many of its former horrours.
But the advocates for slavery, unable to defend themselves against these arguments, have fled to other resources, and, ignorant of history, have denied that the right of capture was the true principle, on which slavery subsisted among the ancients. They reason thus. “The learned Grotius, and others, have considered slavery as the just consequence of a private war, (supposing the war to be just and the opponents in a state of nature), upon the principles of reparation and punishment. Now as the law of nature, which is the rule of conduct to individuals in such a situation, is applicable to members of a different community, there is reason to presume, that these principles were applied by the ancients to their prisoners of war; that their effects were confiscated by the right of reparation, and their persons by the right of punishment.”—
But such a presumption is false. The right of capture was the only argument, that the ancients adduced in their defence. Hence Polybius; “What must they, (the Mantinenses) suffer, to receive the punishment they deserve? Perhaps it will be said, that they must be sold, when they are taken, with their wives and children into slavery: But this is not to be considered as a punishment, since even those suffer it, by the laws of war, who have done nothing that is base.” The truth is, that both the offending and the offended parties, whenever they were victorious, inflicted slavery alike. But if the offending party inflicted slavery on the persons of the vanquished, by what right did they inflict it? It must be answered from the presumption before-mentioned, “by the right of reparation, or of punishment:” an answer plainly absurd and contradictory, as it supposes the aggressor to have a right, which the injured only could possess.
Neither is the argument less fallacious than the presumption, in applying these principles, which in a publick war could belong to the publick only, to the persons of the individuals that were taken. This calls us again to the history of the ancients, and, as the rights of reparation and punishment could extend to those only, who had been injured, to select a particular instance for the consideration of the case.
As the Romans had been injured without a previous provocation by the conduct of Hannibal at Saguntum, we may take the treaty into consideration, which they made with the Carthaginians, when the latter, defeated at Zama, sued for peace. It consisted of three articles. * By the first, the Carthaginians were to be free, and to enjoy their own constitution and laws. By the second, they were to pay a considerable sum of money, as a reparation for the damages and expence of war: and, by the third, they were to deliver up their elephants and ships of war, and to be subject to various restrictions, as a punishment. With these terms they complied, and the war was finished.
Thus then did the Romans make that distinction between private and publick war, which was necessary to be made, and which the argument is fallacious in not supposing. The treasury of the vanquished was marked as the means of reparation; and as this treasury was supplied, in a great measure, by the imposition of taxes, and was, wholly, the property of the publick, so the publick made the reparation that was due. The elephants also, and ships of war, which were marked as the means of punishment, were publick property; and as they were considerable instruments of security and defence to their possessors, and of annoyance to an enemy, so their loss, added to the restrictions of the treaty, operated as a great and publick punishment. But with respect to the Carthaginian prisoners, who had been taken in the war, they were retained in servitude: not upon the principles of reparation and punishment, because the Romans had already received, by their own confession in the treaty, a sufficient satisfaction: not upon these principles, because they were inapplicable to individuals: the legionary soldier in the service of the injured, who took his prisoner, was not the person, to whom the injury had been done, any more than the soldier in the service of the aggressors, who was taken, was the person, who had committed the offence: but they were retained in servitude by the right of capture; because, when both parties had sent their military into the field to determine the dispute, it was at the private choice of the legionary soldier before-mentioned, whether he would spare the life of his conquered opponent, when he was thought to be entitled to take it, if he had chosen, by the laws of war.
To produce more instances, as an illustration of the subject, or to go farther into the argument, would be to trespass upon the patience, as well as understanding of the reader. In a state of nature, where a man is supposed to commit an injury, and to be unconnected with the rest of the world, the act is private, and the right, which the injured acquires, can extend only to himself: but in a state of society, where any member or members of a particular community give offence to those of another, and they are patronized by the state, to which they belong, the case is altered; the act becomes immediately publick, and the publick alone are to experience the consequences of their injustice. For as no particular member of the community, if considered as an individual, is guilty, except the person, by whom the injury was done, it would be contrary to reason and justice, to apply the principles of reparation and punishment, which belong to the people as a collective body, to any individual of the community, who should happen to be taken. Now, as the principles of reparation and punishment are thus inapplicable to the prisoners, taken in a publick war, and as the right of capture, as we have shewn before, is insufficient to intitle the victors to the service of the vanquished, it is evident that slavery cannot justly exist at all, since there are no other maxims, on which it can be founded, even in the most equitable wars.
But if these things are so; if slavery cannot be defended even in the most equitable wars, what arguments will not be found against that servitude, which arises from those, that are unjust? Which arises from those African wars, that relate to the present subject? The African princes, corrupted by the merchants of Europe, seek every opportunity of quarrelling with one another. Every spark is blown into a flame; and war is undertaken from no other consideration, than that of procuring slaves: while the Europeans, on the other hand, happy in the quarrels which they have thus excited, supply them with arms and ammunition for the accomplishment of their horrid purpose. Thus has Africa, for the space of two hundred years, been the scene of the most iniquitous and bloody wars; and thus have many thousands of men, in the most iniquitous manner, been sent into servitude.
[*]Jure Gentium servi nostri sunt, qui ab hostibus capiuntur. Justinian, L. 1. 5. 5. 1.
[* ]Serverum appellatio ex eo fluxit, quod imperatores nostri captivos vendere, ac per hoc servare, nec occidere solent.
[† ]Nam sive victoribus jure captivitatis servissent, &c. Justin, L. 4. 3. et passim apud scriptores antiquos.
[* ]Neque est contra naturam spoliare eum, si possis, quem honestum est necare. Cicero de officiis. L. 3. 6.
[* ]1. Ut liberi suis legibus viverent. Livy, L. 30. 37.